Council Approves Parking Change Despite Mayor’s Objections

OCEAN CITY – A proposed code amendment allowing tandem, or stacked, parking with a valet system for some major downtown redevelopment projects advanced this week, but not before the mayor voiced concerns.

Last week, after considerable debate, the council did not pass the proposed ordinance on second reading and instead instructed staff to bring it back with revisions that met some of their concerns to this Tuesday’s work session.

In simplest terms, if a development project for a hotel or resort complex in the downtown area could not meet its minimum parking space requirements on-site, tandem parking, or spaces in which vehicles could be stacked on behind the other could be utilized if a comprehensive parking management system, or valet system, for example, was provided. In other words, if a project required 100 spaces under the code, 20% of them could be tandem if a dedicated comprehensive parking management system was included.

It’s important to note the proposed ordinance, if approved, would apply to any significant redevelopment project in the downtown area that can’t meet its parking requirements on-site, but really the code amendment before the council on Tuesday was crafted to accommodate the major Margaritaville project.

After the council debated the various elements of the proposed code amendment ordinance and ultimately approved the preferred option 2, Mayor Rick Meehan voiced his displeasure with the pending decision by the council and specifically referenced the Margaritaville project without ever naming it.

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“As a mayor, I don’t agree with it,” he said. “I agree with option 1. If you read the summary, it says the development of infill properties in the downtown area is constrained by the availability of land for off-street parking. I think the first determination to be made is if the property is actually restrained. That’s exactly what it says.”

Meehan said the planning commission’s public hearing and findings of fact on the issue remained valid.

“The public hearing about this for the downtown and upper downtown talked about the uniqueness of and some of the lot sizes in the downtown area,” he said. “They are not all the same. They should be judged on a case-by-case basis, which should be determined by the planning commission.”

While not specifically mentioning the Margaritaville project, which is planned for an entire city block between 13th and 14th streets, Meehan made it known in no uncertain terms which project he was referring to. Margaritaville project representatives were in attendance.

“Some people in the room aren’t going to like this, but if you look at the downtown area, I don’t know how you can determine an entire block and 90,000 square feet is restrained from providing parking,” he said. “It’s restrained because you are overdeveloping the property. I don’t even think this would apply, sorry, with the project everyone is talking about.”

Meehan said it would be challenging to determine which properties planned for redevelopment were truly restrained in terms of providing the required parking.

“I don’t know how you determine there is a uniqueness to that property in the downtown area that restrains parking,” he said. “I just don’t see how that’s possible. That’s my opinion and that’s why I do think it’s important that the planning commission first takes a look at a property to determine whether it really meets the test or not with the findings of fact and the recommendation of the planning commission.”

There were also some concerns raised about the definition of the comprehensive parking system, or valet service, for example. On Tuesday, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville returned with a handful of options for the council to consider. The first option essentially would keep the ordinance as proposed with a discretionary planning commission recommendation during site plan approval. The second, and preferred option, would include a planning commission recommendation on the approval of a comprehensive parking management system, but not a determination if the project meets the qualifications for a code amendment allowing the system.

The other two options, which included an additional approval process for a requested conditional use, and a fourth that included the creation of a new special parking exception under the purview of the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) did not get much traction. However, the option ultimately approved did include an appeal process from the BZA.

Neville explained under the preferred option two, the planning commission would still review requests for conditional uses under the new ordinance, but the final decision would ultimately be made by the Mayor and Council. Neville said the staff was recommending the second option, a hybrid of which was later approved by the majority of the council.

“That’s why the staff supports option two,” he said. “The Board of Zoning Appeals would retain the option to create an appeal. We believe option two simplifies the process. We think this will play out well. If you wanted option three or option four, we would have to redraft the entire ordinance.”

Councilman John Gehrig said he hoped whatever version was approved would include a true definition of the comprehensive parking system carefully vetted by the planning commission at site plan review for a project.

“My biggest concern with this is the valet service,” he said. “How can we ensure it’s not just going to be some maintenance guy moving cars around?”

City Solicitor Heather Stansbury said the code amendment ordinance as written accomplishes that.

“The way this is written, it calls for the planning commission to evaluate the comprehensive parking system,” she said. “We felt the planning commission could address those issues. We know it has to be a valet system and it has to be open at all times.”

City Manager Terry McGean said there could be new, creative ways to comprehensively manage parking for a project and the ordinance as proposed did not strictly dictate a traditional valet service. McGean said Gehrig’s concerns could be addressed by adding the word “dedicated” to certain lines in the ordinance.

“This allows us to be not overly prescriptive,” he said. “Parking systems will change, and technology will change. We don’t want to make this too prescriptive. We want to let the planning commission do their job and review these.”

Gehrig said he was fine with the planning commission reviewing the comprehensive parking management system plans at site plan review, but he just wanted a clearer definition.

“This is the first time we’re doing this,” he said. “If a developer says they’re going to have a valet system, it should be a dedicated valet system. …  It needs to be somebody on demand to move the cars. It can’t be some guy watering flowers or fixing an air conditioner on a roof. This is new territory for us.”

Meehan agreed with Gehrig on the comprehensive parking management system definition issue.

“I agree with Councilman Gehrig with regard to making sure that this defines valet systems and comes up with something that’s adequate and meets the test of today’s standards and not just something that was done 30 years ago on a whim,” he said.

Councilman Peter Buas made a motion to approve option two with the word “dedicated” inserted in the appropriate places in the ordinance in regard to a comprehensive parking management system. The motion carried with a 6-1 vote with Council President Matt James the lone dissenting vote.

Meehan reiterated some of his earlier points about the proposed ordinance, which will come back up for second reading likely as soon as next week.

“I just want to reaffirm by objection,” he said. “I do believe option one is the best way to really interpret and follow through on what was discussed at the public hearing and what the intent of this ordinance really is.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.